By Sarah Emerson
14 June 2016
(Motherboard) – In the heart of Siberia’s boreal forest gapes a monstrous chasm local Yakutians call a “gateway to the underworld,” connecting this life to the next.
The ominous crater, which looms a mile long and reaches depths of nearly 400 feet, appeared without warning some 25 years ago. According to geological surveys, it’s been growing at an annual rate of more than 60 feet. Yet, outside of Batagai, a rural town in the Sakha Republic’s Verkhoyansk district, little is known about this natural phenomenon.
Based on what we do understand, the Batagaika crater probably isn’t an entrance to hell. But it is likely a harbinger of something dreadful to come. And, predictably, climate change has a whole lot to do with it.
Sometime during the early 1990s, an industrial facility allegedly cleared a parcel of forest, not knowing that eviscerating the tree stand would kick off a catastrophic geologic event. As climate change worsened around the globe, unprecedented heat waves rippled across Yakutia—one of the coldest places on Earth—melting the exposed layers of glacial ice that had not been seen for up to 200,000 years. Then, one day, the land began to buckle and slump.
The Batagaika crater is what scientists are now calling a “megaslump”: an immense void, or “thermokarst,” in the geomorphology of a permafrost landscape. These sudden rifts appear when permafrost is allowed to rapidly thaw, causing scar zones to sink into the “saturated slurry.” They can remain active for decades at a time. And while understandably terrifying, thaw slumps are a pretty typical feature in Arctic environments like Siberia.
But some scientists see the Batagaika megaslump as an anomaly, and a potentially irreversible sign of worse things to come. [more]